Bouncy castle 'mastermind' guilty of arson

·3-min read

James Balcombe was obsessed with eliminating his rivals and jumping to the top of the bouncy castle industry when he hatched a plan to burn down the competition.

The 57-year-old has pleaded guilty to 11 charges of conspiracy to commit arson on several Victorian jumping castle businesses in 2016 and 2017.

Balcombe instructed three men to carry out arson attacks on his competitors and then on his own business, paying them $2000 for each fire, the Victorian County Court heard on Wednesday.

Balcombe started working in the jumping castle industry in 2010 and was "obsessed" with becoming the best in Victoria, his barrister Simon Kenny said.

"His drive was to become the most successful businessman in this field of jumping castle hire, in doing so he completely lost perspective," he said.

"He wanted to put his competitors out of business."

Many of the arson attacks were unsuccessful, with minor damage caused after Molotov cocktails were thrown into car parks, vehicles or through windows into the front of buildings.

However, Michael Andrew's A&A Jumping Castles business was engulfed by a significant fire, committed by Anderson under Balcombe's instruction.

The January 2017 arson caused $1.4 million damage to the business and destroyed 110 bouncy castles.

Mr Andrew said "18 years of hard work gone up in flames", in a statement read to court.

His wife Aline described Balcombe as a "mastermind" and said she lived in fear following the attack, worried about what else he was capable of doing.

"Eight seconds is all it took to destroy 18 years of our livelihood," she said.

In March 2017, when Balcombe heard police were investigating the fires, he organised for Craig Anderson to set fire to his own business, which was insured for more than $1 million.

His co-accused - Peter Smith, Anderson and Travis Ransom - have already been sentenced, but Balcombe fled to Perth after failing to appear for a pre-trial hearing in December 2018.

He lived under the name Paul Johnson and began creating fake stamps until his plan became unstuck when the AFP investigated the stamp operation.

The AFP told Victoria Police of Balcombe's whereabouts in August 2020, after searching his Dianella home. He answered the door in a wig.

He pleaded guilty to stamp and weapon offences in WA before being extradited to Victoria to face arson charges and a false document charge, after he used a fake medical certificate to get out of court.

Prosecutor Nick Batten said Balcombe was motivated by greed, wanted to eliminate his business rivals and to defraud his insurer.

"He wanted to be number one on Google and he wanted to face less competition from others," he said.

Mr Kenny denied his client was a criminal mastermind and said once the fires started "it effectively snowballed".

He said Balcombe, who appeared via videolink, suffered from a personality disorder, which impaired his ability to make sensible decisions.

Mr Kenny urged Judge Stewart Bayles to hand Balcombe a cumulative sentence and not to punish him for each of the 11 arson attacks and attempts.

Balcombe was remanded in custody to face sentencing at a later date.

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